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A Guide to Using Public Transit

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I f you’re from a city like the one that I am from, public transportation probably means waiting an hour for a bus that will take you within a mile from your destination if you are lucky. Visiting a city that is connected with by a good public transit network is a refreshing change when you aren’t used to it. I’ve been to cities like New York City, London, Washington, and Paris that all boast wonderful public transportation systems designed to get you throughout the city in a hurry.

So where do you start?

Before zipping through the Tube on the Northern line or catching the A train to Downtown New York, you’re going to need a way to board.

In my experience, it has been beneficial to purchase unlimited ride passes in most areas. These usually include buses in reasonable distances in addition to trains. But in some instances, like in Washington D.C., it actually makes more sense to pay as you go.

It is best to estimate how much you think you will be riding public transit to make a decision on purchasing a pass or paying as you go.

Cities like Boston and D.C. use contactless cards while cities like New York use traditional paper cards to access the rails and buses. Athens, Greece uses small slips as tickets.

If you are arriving by airport, there will surely be machines that will allow you to purchase fare with a debit or credit card or with cash in some instances. These machines will also be located in the stations themselves. You can also use these to check your balances in real time.

Don’t be afraid to ask station attendants questions about purchasing fare or using the machines.

How do I get somewhere?

New York is considered to be the largest metro system in the world with almost 500 stations. When a train arrives you have literally seconds to decide whether or not you want to board before the doors will close.

It is safe to say that navigating through something like this as a novice can be a little daunting. The important thing here (and perhaps the most obvious) is realizing the basic way a rail system works.

Rails are unidirectional so any particular train is either going in one direction or the other. You just simply have to find the current station that you are at and take whichever train is going in that direction.

Once you’re on the train, pay attention to where the train is stopping as it goes along. If it is stopping at stations that is not in the sequence leading up to the station that you want to go to, you are going the wrong direction.

The beauty is that you can just hop off and switch platforms and catch the next train!


Google Maps is by far the best navigation app for public transit that I have used. There are others out there like Moovit and Transit. but I strongly prefer to use Google Maps.
Just type in your destination and click the public transit icon and it will generate all of the different routes that you can go via transit. This includes departure and arrival times and walking directions to and from stations.
It could pay dividends to take a second and look at where to exit a subway station. This could save you a lot of unnecessary walking. Sometimes the app will give you this information but sometimes you have to make that determination yourself.
I would also recommend saving an image of the transit map on your phone. They will be in stations and on trains, but it is much more convenient to be able to quickly reference it in the palm of your hand.

Prime Tips

  • Screenshot your directions. If you are going to an underground train you will likely not have service down below.
  • Give up your seat for the disabled, the elderly, children, and pregnant women. This one should go without saying.
  • Remember that locals rely on public transit for every day use for things like getting to work. The next couple of tips will help you blend in.
    • Walk left, stand right. The unwritten (and actually written in some instances) rule of escalators and people movers is that if you want to stand, do so on the right. If you want to walk, do so on the left.
    • DO NOT stop in the middle of a station. This is one of the most annoying things you can do to commuters around you. If you need to gather your bearings, step to the side.
  • This only applies to some rail systems, but be weary of trains with express service if you are making a local stop. Express service will skip these stops for faster service to more important destinations.

In the End

You now have all the basics you need to conquer the mighty rails like a pro. So don’t sit in traffic with an Uber driver named Raul telling you stories about his ex-wife. Happy traveling!

Chris Fluitt
Chris Fluitt
I am an all around tech guy, a graphic designer and programmer, a car enthusiast, and a coffee and beer lover. When I'm not behind the keyboard I am probably exploring a national park.

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